Egypt has been without a parliament since 2012. As the drastically reconstituted legislative body convenes this week for the first time in nearly four years, the final step in the restoration of Egypt’s authoritarian system of government appears to be complete.
Ever since the July 2013 coup that brought to an abrupt halt the tenuous transition to democracy that followed a popular uprising to remove Hosni Mubarak from power, Egypt’s state institutions have been realigned under the authority of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. To be sure, the process has been fraught with external opposition and internal discord but, through it all, Sisi has managed to tighten his grip on power and consolidate his control over the country’s governing structures.
Sisi’s supposed “road map to democracy”, which concluded with the swearing in of the new parliament on Sunday, began with the quashing of all independent political opposition following the military’s takeover in 2013.
Beginning with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s long-standing social movement that took the lead in the post-Mubarak transition by winning a series of elections and referendums, Sisi demonstrated that he did not intend to allow the continuation of the opening of the political field to outsiders and challengers.
The military arrested Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, banned his political party, and detained the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership on charges ranging from treason to terrorism.
Security forces confronted Morsi’s supporters across Egypt, leading to incidents of large-scale state violence such as the massacre of hundreds of protesters at Raba’a Square in August 2013.
The judiciary did its part in the political realignment that followed by affirming the decision to ban the Muslim Brotherhood, seize its assets, and then sentencing hundreds of its members to death. While many of Egypt’s other opposition groups cheered on the coup and its aftermath, the counter-revolution soon turned on them as well.
While many of Egypt's other opposition groups cheered on the coup and its aftermath, the counter-revolution soon turned on them as well.
Leaders of the so-called National Salvation Front which emerged in opposition to the Morsi government aimed for a stake in the post-coup political transition, but they were to be disappointed. Following a state media onslaught that questioned his loyalty to the coup, Mohamed ElBaradei was quickly isolated and retreated into another self-imposed exile.
Hamdeen Sabahi dutifully performed the role of opposition candidate in the 2014 presidential election, which Sisi won with 96 percent of the vote. Egypt’s liberal and leftist opposition parties were also marginalised, while revolutionary groups such as the April 6 Youth movement were subject to the coup regime’s new laws banning public protests.
In all, security forces have imprisoned more than 40,000 Egyptians in an unprecedented wave of repression roundly condemned by international human rights groups.
Having neutralised all independent opposition within Egypt, Sisi was free to reshape the country’s political landscape as he saw fit. But in the ensuing months he would discover that establishing a new authoritarian regime on the ruins of Mubarak’s collapsed dictatorship would be no easy task.
In the three-part transition to democracy, Sisi announced after the coup, the passage of a new constitution was to be followed by parliamentary and then presidential elections. However, he soon reversed the order of the planned elections, securing his own position as president in May 2014 before turning to the question of Egypt’s next legislative body.
The elections were delayed several times before they were finally held last October. In the interim period, Sisi embodied both presidential as well as legislative powers, issuing no fewer than 300 laws affecting everything from civil rights and government subsidies to state projects and the makeup of the parliament itself.
Having realised that he could not count on the emergence of a new political party structure on the order of the National Democratic Party (NDP) through which Mubarak wielded power for years, Sisi instead opted for a drastically weakened body made up mostly of individual candidates.
Of the record 596 seats in the new parliament, only 120 – barely one-fifth – are apportioned to party lists, with the rest given to single candidates, 28 of whom are appointed directly by Sisi himself. The regime even altered the party list voting structure to a winner-takes-all system that favours establishment parties.
The two-round parliamentary elections primarily featured candidates competing over who could more convincingly declare their undying loyalty to Sisi. Not surprisingly, voter turnout was reportedly the lowest of any election in Egypt’s recent history.
The resulting parliament consists mostly of former regime figures, Sisi allies, and business elites with strong economic ties to the regime. All 120 seats designated for party lists were won by the ad hoc pro-Sisi alliance called “For the Love of Egypt”. Some recent fissures within the ranks of Sisi’s supporters have revealed quite a bit about how political power operates in the new Egypt.
Popular talk-show host and long-time Sisi supporter Tawfik Okasha received the highest number of votes but after he was sidelined in his effort to become speaker of the parliament, he claimed that the major decisions regarding the parliament were being shaped directly by Egypt’s General Intelligence Services (GIS). With its close ties to the president, the GIS has reportedly played the role of conduit with a parliament that lacks internal cohesion or a strong party presence.
Affirming these reports, Hazem Abdel Azeem, a one-time rising star under Sisi and a key member of his presidential campaign, published a first-hand account of his attendance of several meetings last year at GIS headquarters.
At these meetings, not only did intelligence officials indicate that they were handpicking the individual candidates for the upcoming elections, but they also claimed a target of 400 members of parliament – the two-thirds super majority required to pass constitutional amendments.
Incidentally, in its very first vote of the new session, the parliament elected Ali Abdel Al speaker, with 401 members voting in favour of his candidacy.
Abdel Azeem condemned the close ties between the presidency and the new parliament as an unfair abuse of power that went beyond the standard vote rigging for which Egyptian elections had long been known. In fact, the emerging role of such state institutions in politics signals a dramatic shift away from the traditional place of parties such as the NDP as the base of political support for an authoritarian president.
Instead, Sisi has demonstrated his severe distrust of Egyptian politics with the aim of creating an alternative centre of power that he can more directly control away from public view. Among the legislative initiatives to be taken up by the new parliament are efforts to extend the presidential term from four to six years and a proposal to do away with the two-term limit on the presidency.
Moreover, in the true definition of a rubber stamp, the new parliament is constitutionally bound to consider Sisi’s more than 300 legislative orders in just 15 days. Among those, the removal of state subsidies required for the basic survival of millions of Egyptians, and major pay increases in the salaries of army officers and judges.
Another major initiative undertaken by Sisi involves a controversial agreement that he signed last spring with Ethiopia on water rights in the Nile. While the parliament is expected to retroactively provide its enthusiastic endorsement of the deal, recent reports about the critical effect it would have on Egypt’s access to water suggests that, despite the consolidation of political power in his hands, Sisi’s problems are only likely to multiply.
Abdullah Al-Arian is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service in Qatar and author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.